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We're not alone in the universe... in fact, it's getting kind of crowded here. In Universe at War: Earth Assault, the latest in a long run of PC real-time strategy titles ported to the Xbox 360, our planet is invaded by not one, not two, but three alien races intent on settling their ancient interstellar war once and for all. This diversity of factions and strategy is the game's greatest strength, but in the end, may overwhelm console players relatively new to the genre.
The first third of the rather hokey science fiction campaign is played from the perspective of the Novus, sentient machine beings fighting alongside human allies to repel the Hierarchy, an alien breed that specializes in strip mining other world for resources. Later, you switch sides and control the Hierarchy's armies before finally moving over to the long-dormant and mysterious Masari. Each faction is led by three hero units with special abilities, though some are frustratingly fragile and should be kept out of combat as much as possible (because their death fails the mission).
Strangely, it is only during the last third of the campaign that a complex, global, turn-based territory conquest mode comes into play, letting you choose which territory to attack in your next real-time battle and carry persistent armies from one fight to the next. Sticking it in the end of the campaign like this makes the entire thing feel tacked on and superfluous. Thankfully, the scenario game mode puts it to much greater effect as you conquer the globe without a storyline to get in your way.
For hardcore RTS fans, Universe at War's genius lies in its asymmetrical faction design. The three races are about as different as they can possibly be, and each does everything in their own unique way, from resource collection to unit building. Even StarCraft didn't go this far, and that's really saying something.
Just a few examples of the differences: the Hierarchy build massive battle walkers that double as mobile factories instead of buildings; Novus can convert units into energy form and quickly warp them across the map through a network of cloaked transmitter towers; and the Masari can switch from an offensive Light mode to defensive Dark mode on the fly to suit any given combat situation.
For this reason, multiplayer is the star of the show, with the three sides interacting in unpredictable ways as new strategies emerge. There are some really unexpected twists - for example, if two Novus players allow their networks to interconnect, units can flow freely from one base into another.
Switching from one faction to another means you basically have to learn how to play all over again multiple times throughout the game. For 360 players whose only RTS experience thus far is Command & Conquer 3 or Battle for Middle-earth II, the learning curve might be a turn off. Compounding the intimidation factor are the controls; the interface is as good as any other console RTS to date, but browsing through so many options with so few buttons inevitably takes extra time and causes extra confusion.
Other problems unique to 360, but common to the 360 RTS, surface as well. You don't get too much zoom control even though the maps are absolutely huge. And distinguishing, selecting and commanding individual units on a television set is incredibly difficult sometimes, regardless of whether you have standard or high definition.
If you have the patience and guts to tackle Universe at War: Earth Assualt, however, you'll find plenty to reward you. For hardcore fans, the deep options and completely unique factions will be a revelation. For newbies, it will be a graduation.
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